The Batman Gallery & On the Slates
I want to point a beam of light towards a sample from the gallery ephemera files and a unique poet’s object that are both housed in the Special Collections of SFMOMA’s Research Library. The library took its first breath not long after the museum itself opened in 1935. Over the next 80 years the library has, in addition to acquiring books and periodicals pertinent to the museum’s collection, steadily collected limited edition artists’ books, serials, and unique objects. What follows are just two slivers that I consider related to the world of poetry in the United States.
The Batman Gallery
Originally located at 2222 Fillmore Street (now a Starbucks), the Batman Gallery was founded in late 1960 by William and Joan Jahrmarkt. The black-clad William was also known as “Billy Batman,” a name that was bestowed on him by poet Michael McClure, hence the gallery’s name. The art space’s aim was to provide a venue for the unorthodox works being made by artists at that time, and who have since become associated with the San Francisco Renaissance, Beat Generation, Funk/Junk/Assemblage, and West Coast Abstract Expressionism. The gallery’s first exhibition was of assemblages, drawings, and collages by Bruce Conner, which opened on November 3, 1960.
Although William Jahrmarkt’s family helped set him up with the gallery, his desires lay elsewhere, and so a few years later, after having sold the gallery to Dr. Michael Agron in 1962, Jarhmarkt took his family to Afghanistan where they lived until he tragically died of a gunshot wound in 1970. His remains are interred in Sherpur Cantonment Cemetery outside of Kabul.
In December 2016, I curated an exhibition of Batman Gallery ephemera in a small vitrine housed in the Quiet Reading Room of the SFMOMA Library. The library was lucky enough to have this collection of ephemera donated to it by the Ecliptic Gallery of Australia (who first acquired the collection from Dr. Agron). The collection consists of exhibition invitations, poetry reading announcements, and exhibition posters (including one of a bare chested George Herms with a cop’s hat and sunglasses posing with one of his assemblages). All of the announcements were printed by Dave Haselwood of the Auerhahn Press. His style is instantly recognizable; of course given the milieu the Batman Gallery existed in and for, it makes sense that he would be their go-to printer for exhibition invitations. Some of the names printed on the announcements can be found in SFMOMA’s collection today: Jay DeFeo, Bruce Conner, and Joan Brown, for example. Each card is a tiny artwork in itself! Looking at the announcement for the Voices: 1962-63 poetry reading series, I wondered what it would’ve been like driving with Lew Welch and Kirby Doyle together…in a car…down curvy Highway One to Big Sur? Someone must’ve chauffeured them.
Jack Foley’s pamphlet, “O, Her Blackness Sparkles!” The Life and Times of the Batman Gallery 1960-1965 was incredibly helpful in providing not only some background information on the gallery, but it also includes several photographs taken by James O. Mitchell of various Batman Gallery art openings. I felt the photo of Tina Meltzer to be the most pertinent addition to this collection, as David Meltzer had passed away only days before I finished mounting the exhibition.
On the Slates
I was three months in to working at the library when I stumbled upon a large shoebox-shaped container, while I was searching for another item in the Special Collections stacks. I wondered what it could possibly be; when I opened it, I still thought the same. As seen in the photos, the objects inside the box consist of a well-worn size-12 shoe and a roll of cash. After untying the roll I found that it consisted of a dollar bill and, under it, several individual pieces of paper trimmed to the size and with the same texture as a newly minted bill. On these pieces of paper is printed the poem, “On the Slates” (dedicated to Rosmarie Waldrop). Finding this set of objects attached to the name Clark Coolidge left me perplexed: I knew Clark as a poet and jazz drummer (not to mention a renegade Jack Kerouac scholar), but not as someone who swam in the waters of conceptual art. I think I first came across the title “On the Slates” when it was mentioned in a long list of Clark’s publications. I always assumed it was an early book, possibly even mimeographed. I never came across it in a used bookstore; I never looked that closely at a publication date either. I’ve since learned there is a book, On the Slates, that was published by Tougher Disguises in 2002.
Going back to my discovery: the inclusion of the dollar bill was puzzling until I was searching online for more info for “On the Slates,” and the term “Coolidge dollar” popped up in the lyrics of Cole Porter’s song, “You’re the Top.” Although the Calvin Coolidge dollar coin wasn’t minted until 2014, there’s a comment on the Playbill website that mentions the Coolidge dollar as having been “sound and strong before the stock market crash.” So did the Coolidge dollar coin exist at the time Cole Porter wrote his lyrics? Perhaps there’s a numismatist out there who can assist. The significance of the shoe escaped me. I couldn’t add up the constituent parts into a sum that satisfied me.
I reached out to friends for Clark’s address and penned a letter to him (he doesn’t do email). A week later I received a reply that debunked my above take on his “poem-object.” Clark states that the publisher asked for a short manuscript that he thought was going to be published as a chapbook. The publisher, Flockophobic Press, was run by Alexander Calder’s grandson, Alexander SC Rower, who’s had a hand in Calder-related exhibitions at SFMOMA over the years. The entry for On the Slates in WorldCat confuses the Tougher Disguises publication with the artist’s object, which is sure to confound future Coolidge-ian bibliographic researchers. Let this be a warning, scholars. Anyways, according to Clark, the editors at Flockophobic thought the term “on the slates” also meant “on the skids,” thus the worn-out shoe and roll of bills, typical personal items someone might find under an SRO hotel bed. The actual meaning of the title is in regards to “a geological formation in Rhode Island, a series of slates that run down the center of the state (…).” Of course the poem-object’s dedicatee needs no introduction, but it should be known to non-poetry readers that Rosmarie Waldrop has lived and taught in Rhode Island for decades and is a close friend of Clark’s.
After publication, Clark received several of these shoebox-sized poem-objects as contributor’s copies but they were, alas, destroyed by mildew in 1997 in the basement of his previous home in Massachusetts. And those aren’t Clark’s discarded shoes in those boxes, or so he says.
All photos are courtesy of the SFMOMA Library + Archives.
Poet, painter, and musician Brian Lucas published his most recent book, Eclipse Babel (Ensemble Editions), in 2015. His paintings were featured in the recent exhibitions Dark Star: Abstraction and Cosmos (Planthouse in New York City) and Divine Invasions (Krowswork in Oakland). He plays in the band Dire Wolves, whose most recent albums are Excursions to Cloudland (Beyond Beyond is...